Thursday, October 05, 2006

I'm just about the only person I know who has an abiding interest in the American Civil War, and yet has never taken the time to read Charles Frazier's spectacularly successful first novel, Cold Mountain (even as I typed this, I had to go back and change "Harbor" to "Mountain," a mistake I make every time I reference the book or movie).


I can't satisfactorily explain why I haven't read it yetI still plan to. Really. It's a little odd that I've put it off, because I very much enjoy artfully done, authentic, historical fiction. And I love the atypical story line of Cold Mountain (atypical for Civil War fiction, but, in fact, something of a classic quest story as old as Gilgamesh), and from what I've skimmed, the prose looks beautifully wrought, and mesmerizing. It is interesting to me that Inman is an actual ancestor in the author's life. I like the fact that the narrative is a journey, that it isn't, at heart, a tale of battle, or a fictionalized portrayal of great generals. Frazier stands as a kind of anti-Shaara, and that appeals to me in a big way. Okay, that settles it. Tonight I'm moving Cold Mountain into the nightstand rotation.

I suspect, but try not to admit it, that my avoidance of the novel initially had to do with the fact that it was so immensely populareven outside of Civil War circlescausing the inner-elitist in me to momentarily stall any deep interest. I should also say that I'm a relatively slow (deliberate) reader with a ridiculous backlog of books. By the time I had an opening on the active stack for Cold Mountain, I had read untold numbers of reviews, had skated around the periphery of 100s of online discussions about the book, and had even stood transfixed at parties where people who would not read a nonfiction Civil War book to save their lives, enthusiastically summarized Frazier's story. Not long after that, I was seeing trailers for the movie. I did eventually rent the film, thought it was great, and was quick to purchase the soundtrack (I am not ordinarily a big customer of sound tracks, but Jack White's renditions of some essential American sounds was irresistible, like the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, or Ry Cooder's work on numerous films).

Charles Frazier is a true inspiration to those of us who know, deep down, we have at least one good novel in us, and hope we, too, can buck the lottery-like odds of getting a novel published, and noticed. Frazier went from underpaid English teacher, to stay at home dad hanging with the other moms on field trips (driving for elementary school field trips has been a great source of enjoyment for me, in this, my 2nd childhoodwhere we live, my kids go to places like NASA Ames Research Center, or Pacific tidepools, a stark contrast to the only field trip I can remember taking as a kid, out to the local water treatment plant in small town Iowa (not that it wasn't interestingin fact, it answered many unspoken questions). I just did a Google search out of curiositykudos to the 8th grade faculty for creating a virtual tour of the very same water treatment plant that so impressed me in the early 70s.

I digress, but only barely. Frazier came out of nowhere, quit his job, finished his book and got Atlantic Monthly Press to buy it for $100,000. The success of that novel led Random House to pay something on the order of $8 million for his 2nd novel, based on a one-page synopsis. In the new book, Thirteen Moons, the Civil War is only incidental to the larger, decades-long timeline, and focuses on the Eastern band of Cherokee who managed to avoid removal to the Indian Territory.

I was excited to learn that Frazier has again incorporated subjects of great interest to me, specifically Native Americans, and Indian participation in the Civil War (way back when, I managed to get two embarrassingly amateurish articles published in an old Civil War glossy on Stand Watie, and Ely Parker). Making an appearance in Thirteen Moons is the endlessly intriguing William H. Thomas, of the Thomas Legion, memorialized in Vernon H. Crow's out-of-print (I think) Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians & Mountaineers. What a fascinating story. Thomas, who was not himself a Cherokee, formed a Civil War command that remains one of the most unique and colorful outfits in the annals of the Late Unpleasantness.

The saga of the Eastern band of Cherokee is a bigger story than Thomas's Legion, of course, and I'm anxious to see how Frazier treats the subject in Thirteen Moons. He wrote a little essay in 1997, at Salon.com (subscription required, probably), under the title, "How the Author Found the Inspiration for his Civil War-era Novel Among the Secrets Buried in the Backwoods of the Smoky Mountains." Inman's trek, and the Cherokee, it becomes clear, are just different stories about the same place:


Last year, when I was nearly finished with the book, I went looking for yet another grave. I climbed up the hill where my father says the real Inman is buried. There's nothing to tell exactly where he lies. Just a bunch of sunken oblongs with wooden markers rotted down to stubs or flat stones with unreadable scratching on them. All anonymous. If he's there he has a fine view to the forks of the Pigeon River, where once stood a Cherokee town called Kanuga, not a trace of it left but potsherds in the river sand. His long view is up toward Cold Mountain. I am in his debt and I wish him peace.



5 comments:

Eric Wittenberg said...

David,

I haven't read it yet, either, nor do I plan to.

In my case, between my research and what little pleasure reading I do have time for, I don't have time. For me to read fiction, it's really got to jump out and grab me, or be by someone whose work I really enjoy, such W.E.B. Griffin (I used to be that way about Clancy, but his last several books have been just awful). The vast majority of my pleasure reading (such as it is) is history, and most of it is NOT about the Civil War. As an example, I'm in the middle of Ron Chernow's bio of Alexander Hamilton now.

I have no interest in Cold Mountain at all, and no intention whatsoever of reading it.

Eric

dw said...

Eric,

Thanks for the note. I know what you mean about not having enough time (even to read nonfiction books on subjects other than the Civil War, let alone fiction).Like most avid CW readers (so I imagine), my interests in history are all over the map, from the voyages of Captain Cook to the Roman Empire, to name two books in the queue. On top of everything else, I try to keep abreast of the scandal-du-jour in Washington, and have an impossible weekly class assignment at present (this week I'm reading The Odyssey). Something has to give, and that usually means fiction.

That said, I enjoy fiction so much, I always make time for it, if only a few pages a night before turning off the light. There are few pleasures as rewarding, and few escapes as reliable as a masterful novel.

David

Kevin said...

Hi David, -- At the time of the books release I was working at a Borders Books outised D.C. His publisher held a party and our events coordinator asked if I would like to attend. I had a blast with Frazier. He's very kind and I remember him commenting to me that he hoped the book would do well. Turns out that his family was ready to force him back to work if this book didn't do well.

In addition to Frazier, P.J. O'Rourke was also in attendance. I sat and chatted with him at the bar for hours. It was a great night.

dw said...

Kevin,

Sounds like an enjoyable evening, definitely a bookstore perk.

David

Anonymous said...

In reference to Vernon H. Crow's book regarding Thomas' Legion, it may be purchased from Museum of the Cherokee Indian:

http://www.cherokeemuseum.org/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=CM&Product_Code=00038

An excellent website about Thomas' Legion and William Holland Thomas is:

http://thomaslegion.net